A powerful new book was released this week which speaks to a young generation about LGBTQ history, parenting, and the road ahead for LGBTQ acceptance.
Published by HarperCollins, Richie Jackson’s new book Gay Like Me is his reflection as a gay dad to his gay son – sharing both personal experiences about coming out, as well as the journey of the LGBTQ community over the last 50 years. The book bridges the knowledge gap of what it’s like to be gay in America and will no doubt stand the test of time. Angry, proud, fierce, tender, it is a powerful letter of love from a father to a son that holds lasting insight for us all.
Jackson is a prolific producer for Broadway, television, and film – having executive produced Showtime’s Nurse Jackie, which was nominated for Emmy, Golden Globe, and GLAAD Media Awards. He also recently produced the Tony Award-nominated Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song.
GLAAD works every day to share powerful stories from the LGBTQ community. Richie and his powerful book are the latest. Richie was in GLAAD’s New York office to speak with Huffington Post reporter Curtis Wong about Gay Like Me.
Below is a brief Q&A with Richie to learn more about his story, family, and book.
GLAAD: Why did it feel urgent for you to write this book?
Richie Jackson: When our older son was 15, he came out to my husband and me. I was elated. I hoped he would be gay; my greatest wish was for him to be gay. Then he said, “Daddy, being gay isn’t a big deal. My generation doesn’t think it is a big deal.” And I thought, “Oh no!” Being gay is a really big deal. Being gay is the best, most important part of me. I realized I needed to share with him what it means to be a gay man. If he diminishes it, demeans it, puts it in a corner of his life he will break his own heart and not take full advantage of the gift that it is. Then, in 2016, Donald Trump was elected President, chose Mike Pence for VP, and they declared war on the LGBTQ community just as our son was about to leave our home for college and be a gay adult out in the world. Now I had to tell him what it takes to be a gay man in America.
G: If people could walk away remembering one thing from this book, what would it be?
RJ: Being gay is a gift.
G: Can you tell us about how you came out? How do you think coming out and being out has changed from when you were young to now?
RJ: The first person I told I was gay was my music teacher, and she just hugged me and seemed very sad for me. I next came out to my best friend at the time, Alan, who when I told him I was gay just said, “No, you aren’t.” We never discussed it again. But then, when I was seventeen years old I got a lifeline from an ally—my mother. She had seen a Broadway show that she loved so much that she bought more tickets on the way out to take me. She told me it was an amazing play, with an extraordinary performance by the lead actor who was also the playwright. His name was Harvey Fierstein. I asked her what the show was about. She said homosexuality. I was shocked she thought to take me. I was eager to see a show about gay people, but I was certainly apprehensive to go, worried about how gay life would be portrayed on the stage, and how, at that closeted period in my life, that portrayal would reflect on me, especially in front of my own mother. This groundbreaking play, Torch Song Trilogy, is about a man named Arnold—a drag queen—trying to find love and demanding acceptance as a gay man in 1970s New York City. At the end of the play, his mother tells him that being gay is a sickness, and that if she knew he was going to turn out gay, she wouldn’t have bothered. Arnold tells her, “There’s nothing I need from anyone except for love and respect. Anyone who can’t give me those two things has no place in my life. You’re my mother. I love you. I do, but . . . if you can’t respect me . . . you’ve got no business being here.” And she leaves.
After the show, my mother said to me, “If you ever came home and said you were gay, I would never react like the mother in the play.” It was as if she had said, I know you are gay and I am helping you come out. I was overwhelmed by my mother’s gesture. She had no gay friends, no gay coworkers, and virtually nobody in our world was talking about gay people back then. It was her own humanity that got her to use a Broadway play like a crystal ball and show me my future. It showed me a life that could be possible for me.
I think it’s going to be harder for my son being gay than it was for me growing up. The danger is that visibility is not a cure-all. Rainbows and #loveislove is just the veneer masking a very real war that is being waged on our community by our government. I should have been ready when I saw the White House blazing with rainbow lights that incredible June evening in 2015, celebrating the Supreme Court’s ruling on Marriage Equality, that a straight-lash was coming for us. Our adversaries think that house belongs only to them. When I was growing up, so much of what we were hoping to achieve seemed like a pipe dream to us, and to LGBTQ bigots, their worst nightmare. But since so much has been realized and so much progress, now their nightmare came true and they are working hard to unravel everything we have achieved and trying to make sure we don’t get it back. There are over 100 anti-LGBTQ bills in state legislatures – 34 states in all. The Trump Administration has argued in the Supreme Court that it is constitutional to fire us for being gay and they argued it was permissible for a baker to refuse to bake a cake for a gay wedding. They’ve also reinstated the ban on transgender Americans serving in the military and the HHS tried to institute a rule that would allow medical personal to deny care to LGBTQ people by citing religious freedom.
G: There’s a chapter in the book titled “Otherness is a Leg Up to Extraordinary,” and you say that being gay “is a gift. It’s freedom. It’s the gift of possibility.” You write that it’s the best part of you. Can you speak more about that and wanting to shift the narrative around otherness?
Whether my son feels it as acutely as I did, and still do, he is other. The persistent, dominant, first-priority vision is our otherness. And the way to deal with our otherness is not to soften the edges, not to find the ways to fit in or to pass. It is to double down, to exploit and to expose all those parts of us that are other. Those elements of our otherness are our deep well of creativity and divinity. Our answers reside in our singularity and difference. By amplifying our otherness we unlock our promise and potential. Our benevolence, our quests, our talents, our vision board for our future—these are some of the very traits that make us unique. What we need to do is to activate them. Build up our resolve to expose our specialness. The way to stoke it is to revel not only in our own otherness, but in the big, wide, diverse community of otherness of which we are a part.
G: You have always wanted to be a father. Why is that? What did the idea of parenting mean to you before and after becoming a parent?
RJ: The single dream and drive of my life has always been to be a father. I didn’t have career goals, never fantasized about money or glory or fame. All I wanted was to catch a ball in the backyard with my son. I didn’t desire power; I desired paternity. In 1984, when I was eighteen, I told my mother that I was gay and that I was going to be a father.
G: You talk about the evolution of the gay community’s visibility in culture. What is your opinion about where the community is now and where it ought to be going? What can the community do to actively shape its narrative?
RJ: I worry that our community has gotten complacent, all the rainbows and #loveislove has lulled us and masks the very real and dangerous war that is being waged on us.
I am old enough to remember when we were “Gay”; now we are “LGBTQ.” And our combined identities are not just stripes on our flag so everyone feels represented; our initialism is our chain linking us together— we rise and fall, survive and thrive, only if we all do. Those who want to do us harm aren’t parsing out our letters to simply pick off just one of us. They strike first at the most vulnerable and continue down the line.
We need to change the way we think about LGBTQ people. We are 4.5% of the population. That is not a defect, that is not worthless that’s chosen. Think about how extraordinary LGBTQ people are – we disappoint our parents, are at battle with our government, we are stygmatized by our religions, bullied in our childhood, erased in our classrooms, we have survived a plague and still we rise and come out and say THIS IS ME and we stay aloft daily. That is the spirit of an extraordinary species of people.
G: What would you say to people so they can be better allies to the LGBTQ community? What would you tell parents of gay children or parents who think their child might be gay?
RJ: A recent study showed that LGBTQ Youth are 40% less likely to attempt suicide if they have one accepting adult in their life and the remarkable part of that is the adult doesn’t have to be a parent. So, if allies and advocates were more visible and vocal we could all help save lives.
We need our allies to be advocates. They need to make our rights and safety a condition for voting for a particular candidate. They need to vote as if our lives depend on it, because they do.
The advice I would give parents of LGBTQ children is to parent the child you have, not the child you thought you would have, or you thought you wanted. You can help raise them with good self esteem. Teach them LGBTQ history, not as some responsibility, but so they understand they are part of a long continuum of extraordinary individuals who have always been part of changing the world and who will help them feel less alone. Expose them to LGBTQ writers and artists who can make them understand the power of their otherness and to guide them on how to take care of themselves and their partners. If you participate in raising your LGBTQ child, you will have a more exciting, magical adventure than you ever imagined.